STARKVILLE — After opening the NIT with a surprising upset victory over Saint Louis last week, Mississippi State hopes to continue building momentum that coach Ben Howland says would be “a springboard into next season” by beating Richmond in the quarterfinals at 5 p.m. Thursday.
“Let me tell you, Richmond is really good,” Howland said. “They’re very well coached.”
Although the NIT is usually played at campus host sites until the semifinals, MSU will play the Spiders at the UNT Coliseum in Denton after beating Saint Louis on Saturday in Frisco.
“It’s just part of the COVID protocol,” Howland said of playing the tournament in one central location as opposed to host sites. “We totally understand it and get it. What was kind of nice for us is when we’re down in Texas, we have the second-most amount of alums of any state outside of Mississippi in Texas. So, we had some fans there that supported our team which was really kind of nice. I really appreciated that.”
Richmond has five players averaging double figures, but their two leading scorers, Grant Golden (12.7 points per game) and Blake Francis (16.1 ppg), will be game-time decisions. Howland said Golden is dealing with a fractured finger and Francis has either a back or hip injury.
“We’re preparing like they’re both going to play,” Howland said. “… We’ve got our hands full. “This is a great experience for our team, and our program moving forward with a very young group that only has two seniors on the team right now.”
Other double-digit scorers for Richmond are Tyler Burton (12.4 ppg), Nathan Cayo (12.4 ppg) and Connor Crabtree (11.9 points per game). Richmond is No. 68 in the NET rankings and the 10th-best team nationally in limiting turnovers according to KenPom.com. This will be the first time Richmond and MSU face off since the 2009-2010 season, and the programs have split the all-time series history at two games apiece.
“You can see why they beat Loyola-Chicago, they beat Kentucky at Kentucky, and they beat Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt,” Howland said. “They’ve had a tough year with COVID like so many teams had throughout the country, but we’ve got our hands full. We’re going to have to really execute.”
A win would vault the Bulldogs into the NIT Final Four for the third time in program history and the first time in three seasons. Even though a blowout loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals ended any chance of making the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs (16-14) enter the matchup winners of five of their last eight games, including the Saint Louis win.
“It’s been a real up-and-down year,” Howland said. “I think the biggest thing when we’re playing well starts with our defense. We led the SEC in field goal percentage defense, and we were number one in rebound margin. Those are things that we have to try to continue to emphasize to give us a chance to play against these really good times at this time of year.”
A potentially appetizing semifinal matchup awaits the Bulldogs if they can down the Spiders and Western Kentucky can defeat Louisiana Tech. Not only would MSU power forward Tolu Smith get a crack at facing his old teammates at WKU, but the more made-for-TV storyline would be Hilltoppers coach Rick Stansbury facing the team he once coached from 1998 to 2012.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.
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